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Linking Metropolises: Linguistic and Geographic Connections in Los Angeles and Mexico City

A still of Taniel Morales's "Palabra Viva" explaining the word "popular." | Courtesy of the artist Talking to Action PST LALA
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This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

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Los Angeles and Mexico City are both sprawling metropolises that are the center for arts, culture and business but they are linked in more ways than this. For example, there is an ongoing cultural exchange between the two cities, collaboration between universities, and, with migration, an on-going Mexican influence on LA culture.  

Taniel Morales takes these similarities and connections between the two cities a step further in his interactive art piece, "Palabra Viva (The Living Word)" at Talking To Action: Art, Pedagogy, and Activism in the Americas at Otis College of Art and Design (September 17, 2017 through December 10, 2018), an exhibit that explores contemporary social art practices throughout the Americas.

While Morales was teaching a workshop on mixed-media radio and the creative community at Otis, he felt that the neighborhood he was in was similar to his neighborhood of Tlapan, in the southern part of Mexico City. At the same time, he began biking through Los Angeles, riding nearly 35 miles a day, always recording the routes he took. When he returned to Mexico City, he mapped out routes that were as close as possible to the ones he had ridden in Los Angeles, and rode those, noting the geographic similarities of the two cities.

These interactive maps are part of "Palabra Viva," an example of “radio expandida” or radio that includes web pages with video, images and text. These maps presented on an app where “they occupy the same time and place,” Morales says. Through these maps, viewers can explore what Morales calls “geographic coincidences,” between the two cities. The overlaid and interactive maps are the foundation of the project, hosting the vibrant center of "Palabra Viva," a glossary of words that Morales defined through interviews he did with people on the street during his bike rides.

A still of Taniel Morales's "Palabra Viva" explaining the word "pueblo." | Courtesy of the artist Talking to Action PST LALA
A still of Taniel Morales's "Palabra Viva" explaining the word "pueblo." | Courtesy of the artist

Much of Morales’ social justice artwork has been a reaction to violence, which he deems comes from a desire for “control and power. …Violence is only to establish power.” He often refers to the increasing violence within Mexico, and notes that right now, “Mexico is in one of the most terrible times in its history.” This specter of violence, combined with two political events, inspired "Palabra Viva." In 2005, the Zapatistas issued their 6th Declaration Of The Selva Candona, in which they shifted the focus of their resistance from the Mexican government to global capitalism, noting the violence and destruction that comes from this system. At this time, Morales notes that “Mexico had a very organized social resistance.” In the following year, the Mexican government declared war against the narcos. Morales believes that this war against the narcos, “was the seed of destruction in Mexico, that this war was able to destroy the web of social organization…the war was a government strategy against the 6th Declaration of the Selva Candona.” After the government declared war against narcos, Morales, who had worked in radio since the 1990s, shifted his focus towards the relations between the US and Mexico. From these events and his experience in trans-border radio, Morales’ glossary was born.

The glossary itself is the center of "Palabra Viva," as Morales believes that “language is part of our geography…each word is a space that we have to work to realize.” For this reason, he searched out words and definitions from people he encountered on the street, in each city, allowing the definitions that these people gave him of words to realize the culture of the place in which he worked.

12 words make up the glossary, and each one of them is associated with a year, from 2005, the year of the 6th Declaration, to 2017. During his bike rides through Los Angeles Morales conducted interviews with people on the street, first, to establish what the words would be. He proposed the first one: territorio/territory and then following an interview, asked whomever he was speaking with to propose the next word to initiate the next interview. The twelve words proposed are: territorio/territory, pueblo/town, frontera/border, communidad/community, violencia/violence, gentrificación/gentrification, popular/popular, politica/politics, dinero/money, realidad/reality, tiempo/time, vida/life. These words, says Morales, “are very heavy with significance and immediately we begin to understand that, although we say the same word… we mean different things when we speak of territory, of community and we compare the natural space of the word. It creates a cultural crash that I find very interesting.”

Once he had established which words would make up his glossary, Morales began to interview people on the street about the meanings of the words. He did this in both Los Angeles and then in Mexico City, always tracing similar routes through similar parts of the cities. “I am not interested in how a linguist would define the words; more, I want to know what the significance of the word is on the ground,” says Morales in Spanish.

Within the art piece, Morales juxtaposes the definitions of the same word from Los Angeles and Mexico City within the dual, interactive landscape of his maps, revealing the similarities and contrasts between the cultures of Los Angeles and Mexico City. Each word is linked to a specific location on the maps and users are able to upload text, links, videos and music that they think contribute to defining the word, further expanding the impact of the radio app.

Ultimately, "Palabra Viva" lives up to its name: in the same way that Morales noticed how we all carry slightly different definitions of the same words, colored by our cultural experiences and personal biases, as viewers add to "Palabra Viva," they can broaden and shift the meanings of the words and the definition of the cultures.

Listen to Angelenos define the word "violence:"

Listen to Mexicans define the word "violence:"

Top Image: A still of Taniel Morales's "Palabra Viva" explaining the word "popular." | Courtesy of the artist

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